The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #9
In Part Nine of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes, Alfred Hitchcock's voice drips with what can only be described as amused contempt as he speaks of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca as a kind of literary hangover of Victoriana. A "novelette", he calls it; humorless, a wheezy work designed to pull in the women and nothing else. He seems somewhat astonished that François Truffaut could entertain the notion that the adaptation he directed for David O. Selznick in 1940, his first American film, was a picture he really wanted to make; at least in the miserably faithful manner he was forced to execute it throughout the production (a circumstance he attributes to Selznick and the success of Gone With the Wind). "It's not a Hitchcock picture", he says, with all the economy one could ask for.
The mention of Selznick's 1939 commercial behemoth sparks another desultory round of joke-telling. Truffaut leads off with an old one, using a delivery that (in any language, I don't doubt) has 'doom' written all over it. Hitchcock then points out, not unkindly, that the joke is . . . not exactly new; then proceeds to tell one of the many variations handed down through time.
I don't know why the people who produced these excerpts, knowing they had 50 hours of tape to fit into 12 hours of broadcast, decided to include these passages. If it weren't for the personal dynamic they sometimes (not always, and not on this occasion) reveal, they'd be a massive waste of precious time.
When this desultory lull passes, things become terribly strange. Returning to Rebecca, Hitchcock begins to marvel . . . sounding genuinely puzzled . . . at the propensity for what he himself labels "Hitchcock films" to linger in the retrospective ether for so long and with such frequency. Voicing this dilemma, he asks how it is that his work, especially his work in Hollywood, never dates, stays as fresh and as vital and as brilliant as the day it was wrought; even in the case of films made 20 years prior.
The extreme (and I do mean extreme) narcissism of this statement . . . which I suspect had even Truffaut's eyebrows raised to the ceiling; which doesn't stop him from falling for it . . . leads me to think this is another instance of Hitchcock toying with his interviewer. Yet, as I say, he sounds utterly serious.
And who knows but that he was serious? By 1962 there were few directors in the history of cinema with as high a public profile as Alfred Hitchcock. He was a household name; a registered trademark both in spirit and in fact. Since 1955 he'd been in America's living rooms as the genial, avuncular, wry toast presenter of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on CBS (later on NBC). He wasn't the first director to invade homes in such a fashion. Cecil B. DeMille hosted the Lux Radio Theater on the NBC Blue network (later CBS) for 20 years, after all. But Television, as everyone knew all too well by the 1960s, was a far more powerful medium; and anyone featured on it week after week in those days instantly became one of the most recognizable people on earth.
Just imagine what that can do to a movie director, even one already semi-well known as Hitchcock. Never strangers to the more lurid strains of vanity, many filmmakers were so convinced of their creative primacy that a natural resentment was spawned toward those who got all the attention, namely the actors. They didn't create cinema; they just brought suckers into the tent, as it were. But Hitchcock was one of the very few who, by his determination and razor-sharp marketing sense, was able to vault himself into the public eye . . . and stay there. Everyone in America knew that voice, that grim countenance, that "Good Ev-e-ning". Most people in his day could not have picked, say, Fritz Lang or Frank Borzage or even Billy Wilder out of a lineup. But everyone knew who Hichcock was, even if a goodly number weren't completely certain what he did besides host an anthology series on television every week.
And I ask you, who wouldn't be a thoroughgoing narcissist in the face of all that?
The discussion weaves through the use of Special Effects in Rebecca, the absence of them in Jules et Jim, and how it was David Selznick got the Academy Award for Rebecca and not Alfred Hitchcock. And then it's over.